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Arsenal – What Went Wrong?

Arsenal – What Went Wrong?

OK, so it’s not necessarily just the Arsenal defeat where things have gone wrong recently.

One win since mid November – and that merely a late one in a below-par outing against MSK Zilina – has left Blues fans reeling at the club’s worst run of form for over a decade, and has left a number of questions in need of an answer.

Is it an issue with squad depth? Was the downward spiral triggered by Ray Wilkins’ unexpected and untimely departure? Have the players become too comfortable? Do they care? Are they good enough?

It can, and will, go on and on. With Bolton less than 48 hours away and in the knowledge that a win at Stamford Bridge will take them above the Blues, something of a crisis point has been reached.

A solid, if not great first half display at the Emirates Stadium on Monday night was soured by Alex Song’s breakthrough just before the break. Two goals in two minutes from Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott put the game beyond Carlo Ancelotti’s troubled troups, and despite a consolation from Branislav Ivanovic, the game was up.

Rather than go into a full scale report on proceedings – from a match Chelsea fans will quickly want to forget – let’s take a look at some of the on-field problems plaguing the current defending champions.

With just six goals in eight matches and no more than one in any domestic fixture since Blackburn away in October, there are clear and present issues in the attacking third.

Certainly, there is a knock-on effect from the build-up play elsewhere on the pitch, but to analyse things in more detail, let’s take a look at the reverse fixture this season, during happier times when goals from Didier Drogba and Alex secured a 2-0 win over the Gunners at Stamford Bridge.

Against this particular opponent perhaps more than any other, Drogba has thrived on being the physical battering ram in attack, and Chelsea duly play to his strengths.

Petr Cech’s excellent long distance kicks to the Ivorian are commonplace, especially in this fixture, but despite Johan Djourou doing a fine job this time around, Chelsea’s talismanic striker struggled for support.

At home, he was able to dominate his marker, but had help in the form of runners from midfield, looking to outnumber their red-shirted opponents and play in space.

However, come the re-match, Arsenal adapted well, giving him a tougher time in receiving the ball, whilst ensuring more men were back. Drogba had little help, with Lampard and Malouda in this example both having given up on the ball before it’s been won, whilst Kalou is far too wide.

If this approach wasn’t going to work, there were surely alternatives? Again, it’s a tale of two matches. With their tails up, confident and in form and with a lead at home, Ramires has plenty of options to choose from as he looks to advance the ball.

On Monday, John Obi Mikel takes up possession a little deeper, but looks forward to a sea of Arsenal shirts, with no easy ball forwards. Instead, he goes on to search out Drogba, gets it completely wrong, and concedes possession.

The importance of playing forward cannot be stressed enough. It is preached at every level and is the only way to play, as otherwise it affords the opposition too much of an opportunity to rest and stay in their shape. Rotating possession is fine, and a very integral part of success, but the ability to play further up the pitch is paramount.

Unfortunately, it has plagued the team in recent times. Here, Ramires once again – one who was superb in the home fixture but overlooked in the away one despite impressive recent form – has a multitude of options to choose from. He finds the out of picture Ashley Cole, who provides Drogba with the chance to open the scoring, which he duly does.

Deeper down the pitch at the Emirates, Kalou breaks up play in a similar manner to the above, but has nothing available, and once again, turns the ball over.

It doesn’t get a whole lot better when playing in and around the penalty area. Despite being almost outnumbered, Ancelotti’s forwards provide Ramires with options midway through the second half, with Drogba pulling away from his man into space to facilitate the through ball.

Contrastingly, early in the game, when attempting to seize an early initiative, Lampard turns in anticipation of attacking movement, only to once again find nothing. His options are to play the ball wide to Kalou, or to play backwards, allowing Arsenal to add to their strong numbers behind the ball.

By making it easy for the opposition to defend, Chelsea offer them confidence to go about their business at the other end, safe in the knowledge that there is little to worry about at the back.

Here, at 0-0 in both fixtures, the ball is worked wide to the full-back – something which was a clear target for Chelsea in both matches – who has time and space to fashion a delivery. At home, he has men on the move, ready to meet the ball, and a late arrival at the back post if necessary.

Away, he simply has Drogba. The header is won and he goes close, but the situation is in Arsenal’s favour, and once again they aren’t truly threatened.

Now, you might say that these situations have been selected to prove a series of points, whilst missing the bigger picture. That much might be argued, but there was a clear difference between winning and losing.

Arsenal dominated possession on both grounds, and had more attempts at goal. Chelsea scored twice from set pieces (which are Arsenal’s biggest flaw this season) – one direct and one indirect – but looked more threatening in attacking situations at home.

Playing a counter-attacking system each time, it was important to make full use of the ball when you have it. If possession is wasted – and Chelsea only had 39% of it in defeat – the match quickly becomes a one-sided affair.

It’s also not just about the two fixtures. With the exception of the away fixture at Birmingham, where 31 attempts at goal were recorded, things have been desperate in front of goal.

Injury problems haven’t helped, and the squad depth issue is another argument, but one which may prove harder to fix. These tactical issues, nothing more than providing more options for the man on the ball, can be addressed.

The players look petrified as of right now, afraid to make a mistake which could make things worse. With two tricky home fixtures coming in the next six days, the focus must be on improving morale, and getting numbers into attack.

And remember, win or lose, up the Blues.

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The Harding Perspective: Arsenal

The Harding Perspective: Arsenal

With the United match now on the back-burner until March, the focus switches to another of this seasons title contenders; Arsenal.

Fabianski’s return in goal should be a welcome sight for Chelsea fans. His presence in goal this season has made a shaky central pairing look even more fragile, as Vermaelen’s loss is felt with each passing game.

Fabianski possesses an inability to claim crosses and is a man with a penchant for high profile rickets; the Chelsea attack should be relishing his inclusion.

The Arsenal full-backs are pacey and better going forward than defensively, who generally suffer from lack of protection from their wide men. Squillaci and Koscielny have shown a lack of cohesion in recent weeks, an uncomfortable pairing that look even more uneasy when protecting Fabianski.

Arsenal

Wenger’s main joy will come from the passing, interplay and movement of his front four/five. Fabregas has been below his usually impeccable standards this season, but his vision and ability to pick out a pass are exceptional.

Being shielded by Song and Diaby will give Fabregas license to link up with Arsenal’s front three, who are as potent a combination as anywhere in Europe. The impressive Nasri joins Arshavin and Van Persie in a dangerous and threatening forward line.

Moving Nasri out wide may be a blessing in disguise, as he has been far more influential playing the Fabregas role in the Arsenal Captain’s absence.

ArsenalThe heatmap to the right shows Arsenal at their most effective; taken from their demolition of Aston Villa in November. If Arsenal’s midfield and front three control the tempo of the game, they are deadly.

Their interplay at times is mesmerising, but it relies heavily on dominating the middle of the park. If Fabregas can take possession in the key areas on the right, Arsenal will hurt us. We can see they rarely look to work the ball wide, but instead rely on working the ball primarily in the central two channels. Arshavin is particularly adept at moving into these channels and exploiting space.

Arsenal’s strength, as with the above, is in their ability to maintain possession and work intricate triangles in the opponents half. Fabregas, Nasri and Arshavin in particular will need to be monitored carefully as they tend to drift from their starting positions in between the lines of the opposition (note to Michael Essien and Jon Obi Mikel).

However, in my eyes the true danger lies in the left boot of a certain Robin van Persie. Van Persie is a big match player, that is without question and his ability to score goals against top sides is particularly well documented. His movement is superb and although he is just back from injury, for me he is the biggest threat.

Mikel, Ivanovic and Terry need to ensure RVP remains facing his own goal for as long as possible, as his quick feet will trouble if he gets turned or in behind.

For all their attacking quality they do lack a big match mentality. The most salient part of Arsenal’s defeat at United was their inability to pass the ball in their usual fluid manner. Moreover, if there is one side in Europe that can counteract a passing side, it is Chelsea.

The fear of Drogba is well documented, but you do doubt the psychological effect of one player on a side of professional footballers. With Drogba though, the doubts dissipate. Apparently Arsenal fans believe they have more chance of beating Barcelona over two legs than stopping Drogba from scoring?

If we are to win, and we must win, Drogba will need to play the school bully once more.

KEY ISSUES:

1. MAKE ARSENAL PLAY WIDE – We need a stellar performance from Messrs Mikel and Essien in the middle of the park.

Mikel seems to be a marmite player, he is liked or loathed, but if you cannot see his importance in big games then you need to take your blinkers off. Invariably excellent against top tier opposition, he was superb at Stamford Bridge and last season kept Fabregas firmly in his pocket.

Michael Essien has been slightly off key post-injury, but looked more like his rampaging self against Tottenham in the second half. Looking at the incomplete pass attempts from the game at Stamford Bridge, we can see the benefit of making Arsenal play both long and forcing them to cross the ball.

This requires immense positional discipline and will mean Essien may need to curb his enthusiasm for bursting forward with the ball. Clearly we should favour Terry and Ivanovic over any of Arsenal’s front three/four in the air, so shifting them from their favoured channels should work to our advantage. Arsenal will probably dominate possession, but if they are playing side-to-side that is a positive thing for Chelsea.

They do not want to cross the ball, but when they eventually do you can take that as a victory for Mikel, Essien and Lampard. If Arsenal manages to score from a cross, it will be from a poor piece of defending and not by design.

Arsenal

2. DIDER DROGBA AND FRANK LAMPARD – I cannot remember a player in the Abramovich era ever being as dominant as Drogba is against Arsenal. He is having a quiet season by his own admission, but the fired up Drogba versus Spurs is hopefully looking at Arsenal with a carnivorous grin.

We must not be afraid to look early to Drogba against the Arsenal back line, but this also means that we need to get players around Drogba looking for the second ball (cue Lampard). Drogba’s strength, hold up play and all around bully boy self needs to be evident from the outset.

If he scores, watch the old Drogba return. If he plays well, we will win. He scored a remarkable goal at Stamford Bridge, was a general pest all game and was a menace last season. Please Didier, put your hunting boots on.

Frank, Super Frank, how we have missed you. I am not sure what speed Lampard is up to in terms of his preparation, but if one chance falls his way in the penalty box, who will doubt the best goalscoring midfielder in Europe from slotting it away?

In Frank’s absence it was worrying that no other player could link with the forward line as well. It is of no surprise that our team have looked so disjointed in recent weeks. Lampard brings a balance, an experience, a class and lethality to our midfield that no one else inspires.

People will bang on about Lampard as a purely attacking force, but do take note of how he organises things defensively: I guarantee our midfield looks like it knows each other.

3. SET PIECES AND CROSSES – We are due a goal from a set piece very soon. Drogba, Terry, Ivanovic and Essien are all exceptional in the air and easily overpower/tower over their opposition. Any corner or free kick must be attacked with vigour and purpose.

I am still not happy with the quality of our delivery, but you would bank on us winning the majority of aerial contests in the Arsenal penalty box. Fabianksi is very suspect on crosses and this uncertainty seeps into his defence the more he comes under pressure. We need to pinpoint the Arsenal full backs, often isolated, and pepper crosses into Drogba.

THE TEAM:

Chelsea

The only real question is whether to play Bosingwa over Ferreira. In all honesty I think Paulo is likely to start after his handling of the current World’s Best Player Gareth Bale (I kid, honestly). However, I think given Arsenal’s general pace and our preference to play them on the counter-attack, Bosingwa might be the better option.

The midfield trio picks itself and as with the above thoughts, will determine a large part of whether we come out victorious. We need a performance from Anelka, who has been underwhelming of late. Last thoughts relate to our substitutes bench, which finally has some real impact quality on there for the first time in what seems like weeks.

Ramires, Kalou, Ferreira/Bosingwa and Sturridge provide real options to alter the game if things are not going our way. We have also got players to now alter the system if we choose.

Prediction is a simple one: Drogba plays well, we will win.

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The Harding Perspective: Man United

The Harding Perspective: Man United

This series of articles will hopefully look to address the tactical nuances that will face the Blues before
every game.

What better way to start then to address our biggest rivals for the title: MANCHESTER UNITED (H) 19/12/10.

The biggest tactical dilemma that Carlo will face is simply how to counteract United’s expected shape.

United will surely line up very similar to the formation below, with Nani and Park possibly switching flanks to try and contain Malouda/Cole.

United Line Up

Ferguson has previously attempted to mark our full-backs, and the ensuing wide areas, with a lot of success. However, Nani is reticent to provide cover for his full-back, so I am expecting him line up opposite Paulo Ferreira.

Ferguson will look to stifle our midfield, with the one-man foul machine Darren Fletcher employed in his usual hatchet role. Anderson has shown recent improvement and will like to drive forward with the ball given the opportunity. Park is a willing worker, similar to Dirk Kuyt, who seems to pop up with goals in big games.

United ChallengesI would expect his first thought to be tracking Malouda or Cole and to stop any progress down our left hand side.

I expect United to look to press the ball and dominate the central area of the pitch.

Looking specifically in the middle third of the park against Arsenal, we can see that they clearly won the majority of challenges in midfield (blue = successful challenge/red = unsuccessful challenges).

United’s strength is in their ability to win physical challenges, even under great pressure. Fletcher will therefore be a key ingredient in the outcome of the match.

If we can negate his defensive influence or better yet, if the referee actually books him as soon as he makes a reckless tackle (given his ability to physically push a referee and not get booked I doubt this…) we should remove one of their major strengths. Mikel, Ramires and Essien will need to rediscover their form in the Arsenal game earlier this season for this to occur.

United’s defensive record in recent weeks is impressive, but they are leaking goals in a similar fashion and it is in precisely an area we are strongest. Goals against Aston Villa, Blackburn and Arsenal’s best chances all came down United’s right hand side.

This is surely a reason for Nani to switch flanks with Park, as the prospect of Malouda and Cole attacking down this flank should give us some joy. I think Rafael is potentially a good full-back in the making, but at present he is certainly their weakest player. We must look to exploit him at every opportunity.

KEY ISSUES:

1. MIDFIELD BATTLE – This will be the area where the game is won or lost. United will either succeed to dominate the physical side of the game and subsequently possession or we will compete with them and gain the upper hand.

We were much improved against Tottenham, and we will need the same improvement again if we are to come out on top here. Essien looked better against Tottenham in general and will need to be at his marauding best to tackle the obvious menace of Fletcher.

Mikel needs to rediscover some of that early season form that saw people agreeing, for once, that he was a very good player. His performance against Arsenal was immense and if he can replicate that quality we should not lose the battle in the middle of the park. If Essien and Mikel play well, we will have an excellent chance of victory.

I do not believe Lampard will start, therefore Ramires will once again deputise. He is showing signs of improvement, but United will provide a far more robust test than he has faced so far. If Essien gets the better of Fletcher and Mikel puts Anderson in his pocket, we will have a chance.

2. WIDE AREAS – Our goalscoring threat will certainly come from out wide. Nani will also provide their biggest threat with his direct running style. Having stopped Bale from exerting any real influence at the Lane, Paulo will once again have his hands tied.

Ramires should look to double team Nani when he has the ball. Rafael is their biggest weak link in a very solid back line. We must ensure that Malouda and Cole have every opportunity to run at him. He concedes free-kicks and generally looks uncomfortable against top tier opposition.

I thought Malouda played particularly well at the Lane and looks near his exceptional best. If we can get out wide men into the game we should be able to get at the United back four and cause them problems.

3. TEMPO, MOVEMENT AND SCORING FIRST – We must try and push the tempo of the game and get the first goal. To do this we need to get our movement ahead of the ball back.

Anyone who has been to a game in the past four weeks, and has had the benefit of seeing the entire pitch, will notice that our midfield and front line have barely moved ahead of the ball. If our midfield link with our attack and our movement returns, expect Essien and Mikel to have good games.

What we cannot afford to do is let United dictate the pace of the game, soaking up pressure and then springing on their counter-attack. An early goal would be priceless as it should encourage United onto the front foot.

Drogba needs to escape the attention of Ferdinand and Vidic and try and peel onto Evra as often as possible. Mikel in particular is very adept at chipping the ball into Drogba, so this should work well.

THE TEAM:

Chelsea V United

I doubt Lampard is fit enough to start from the beginning and is a perfect impact substitute to bring on if the game isn’t going our way. Saying that, if he comes through the practice match he is expected to play in, who could write Lampard off from starting?

Bosingwa is expected to be back by Sunday, but again in the same vain as Lampard, is he ready to start? It will mean that we have three genuine substitutes for the first time in a while: Kalou, Lampard and Bosingwa.

If we use our width and retain possession under pressure in midfield I can see us winning this one by a narrow margin.

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